Soldiers Back Home: The American Legion in Illinois, 1919-1939

Article excerpt

Soldiers Back Home: The American Legion in Illinois, 1919-1939. By Thomas B. Littlewood. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 187. Illus, appendixes, notes, bib., index. Cloth $40.00).

Soldiers Back Home adds to the literature of American politics in the 1920s and 1930s. Scant attention has been given to the American Legion as a local-level political force in these pivotal decades. Thomas B. Littlewood uses the Legion in Illinois to investigate its various functions-as lobbying organization, as a small town center, and as "a political training ground." (xii) The preface, prologue, eleven chapters, and epilogue explore the values of local legionnaires as opposed to those of the state and national organization. Littlewood also contends these disagreements mirrored the social and political divides of the interwar years. Few historians have highlighted the role of the American Legion in the conflicts involving prohibition, the Red Scare, the Ku Klux Klan, and organized labor.

Littlewood narrates the complexities of Illinois politics. The upstate-downstate divides proved most important to the fortunes of the newly created American Legion. Its nationwide governance structure privileged a states' rights methodology that enabled southerners to segregate their chapters. In Illinois, though, the divide that mattered had little to do with race and everything to do with Chicago versus the rest of the state. "Downstaters considered the Chicagoans to be inordinately power hungry," wrote Littleton. "Some of the Chicago activists worried about what they saw as the provincial demands of a few southern Illinoisans."(23)

Much of this book explores the social and cultural conflicts between modernity and tradition. Littlewood suggests the American Legion members in Illinois helped foster the politics of the Red Scare even while they sometimes questioned the wisdom of fighting in the Great War. A belief that people not born in the United States or not naturalized as citizens were Communists positioned Legionnaires as opponents of both organized labor and of immigrants. Legionnaires held shared values with the Ku Klux Klan, an important and menacing force in post-World War I Illinois, but, according to Littlewood, the veterans' organization dismissed the Klan for its anarchy while often, but not uniformly, supporting its views on immigration and ethnicity. …